On August 16, the Washington Huskies helped save Ryan Leaf’s life.
In return, he told a story.
Of course, many of you already know that by now. In 1998, Leaf – a statuesque 6-foot-5 quarterback from Washington State – was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, member of the All-American first team and Pac-10 offensive player of the year.
It was a human land mine, designed to explode.
He was all ego and upright and immaturity, locked – like a parasite – to a virgin right arm. In four seasons in the NFL with the Chargers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Seahawks, he had 48.4% of his passes and had 14 total touchdowns and 36 interceptions. By the time he retired in 2002, he was arguably the biggest failure in NFL history.
And things got worse before they got better. The Great Falls, MT native developed an addiction to pain relievers, which led to an arrest for burglary, theft and drug trafficking in 2012. He spent a total of 32 months in jail.
It was there that he got sober.
And found he had a story to tell.
“So this is the idea of choice,” Leaf told The Times last week. “You can be a 21 year old millionaire ranked second overall, and you think that’s who you are and what the ultimate goal is. But you can make bad choices to move forward where everything can go away. So I think it’s a great story, because it has everything they can imagine going right for them… and wrong for them. They can do whatever they want with it. So it’s about choices, consequences, identity – the identity around whether or not you are a football player is all you can be. “
For Leaf, it turns out that was just the start. Now sober for nine years, he works as a college football analyst for ESPN and Westwood One radio, while also hosting a show on Sirius XM.
But, more importantly, he shares his story – heading to college campuses each fall to hopefully make connections and make an impact on lives.
“I’ve been doing this for about five years now and have developed a neat relationship,” Leaf said. “It’s great to hear Trevor Lawrence (former Clemson quarterback and overall first pick) after a big game or after a tough game. He had never lost a game when they lost to LSU in the national championship. Hearing someone at this time is important to me too, because I want to be there for them. So it was really powerful.
“I tell the kids when I finished my speech that they helped save my life today, and sometimes I think people don’t fully understand what that means. It certainly is.
This is where Washington comes in.
Three years ago former Husky head coach Chris Petersen asked Leaf to speak with his team – that’s where he met up-and-coming UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. It was also there that he had a profound impact on excellent defensive back Elijah Molden, who recommended Lake to invite Leaf on another visit this fall.
But his visit consisted of an apparition lasting over an hour. On August 16, Leaf watched practice. He ate with the team. He attended the coaches and quarterbacks meetings. He leaned over the training tape. He spent some individual time with Lake. He made himself available.
And in doing so, he found a program that he said only got better.
“As much as I want to hate the Huskies and everything they stand for and the color purple, Jimmy Lake is a special and special individual. You can just tell,” Leaf said. “You can tell inside. this installation, in these meeting rooms, around the children, it is a neat place that they have. Environmental coach Petersen granted and Jimmy Lake took over, reporting to (athletic director) Jen Cohen, I think that’s fair enough.
That’s one of the reasons Leaf chose Washington to go undefeated this fall. Of course, there are other reasons – such as the strength of the Huskies’ offensive line, improved quarterback Dylan Morris, their rotating team of running backs, and a schedule that includes a top non-conference opponent. and home games against Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State and UCLA.
“I think this is the only team in the Champions Conference that has a real chance of going undefeated. So I predicted it would be the team,” Leaf said. “It’s hard to do now. , don’t get me wrong: I would love to see them be 11-0 and be in Seattle to call the Apple Cup (on the radio) the day after Thanksgiving and watch my Cougars destroy it for them. . But I went on a branch here. I’m looking for a bit of optimism. I’m looking for a Pac-12 team to maybe make a statement this year. I think it’s necessary. I really do. “
And maybe Leaf’s message – delivered during an hour-long team meeting – was needed as well.
“My (presentation) is just raw, transparent. There are no cue cards. There is no PowerPoint, ”he said. “It’s just me in a room with these guys, tearing up the bandage in front of them so they can see this vulnerability and transparency and know it’s OK for them to do the same when the times are right.” hard.
“I’m emotionally exhausted at the end of the night, don’t get me wrong. I want this to be the best possible version of speech it can be every time, so I don’t despise anyone who needs to hear it in this room, whether they need to hear it that night or that they need to hang on to it for years to come. It’s hard to do. You don’t just walk into a room full of strangers and tell them about everything that is going on in your life. But if you talk about transparency and vulnerability, if you’re not prepared to do it in front of them, it’s not going to stay with them.
It’s safe to say he’s stuck.
“Our team, our staff, everyone who was in that room, our coaches, the (operational) people, the recruiting, we all came out with a bunch of notes and a bunch of take out that are going to help us in our own. life, ”said Lake mentioned. “So it was great to have him. How about that? At the very end he gave everyone their phone number and said, ‘If you ever need anything, contact- me. “That was a really cool thing to do. I think our guys could hook up with him, because he’s real, and he just shot him.”
He pulled straight up and he was wearing the shirt – a black long-sleeved UW shirt with “BOW DOWN” in a bold gold print.
Of course, on quarterback Coug’s arms, that counts as a potentially controversial piece of clothing.
But Leaf wore it because the Washington Huskies helped save his life.
And when needed, he’s ready to return the favor.
“It’s about people’s lives,” Leaf said. “We lost our starting quarterback (Tyler Hilinski of Washington State) just over three years ago to suicide because of the stigma that exists. He still didn’t feel comfortable telling his brothers or someone that he was struggling so much and that it could never happen again.
“So it doesn’t matter what colors you wear. If I have to put up with wearing purple for an hour to hopefully make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, then by all means. Those who don’t understand this – who judge and criticize it – will never understand, and that’s a shame. “